Obama’s Objective: Avert Israeli-Palestinian Meltdown in Midst of Crisis in Ukraine

Obama may have once asked for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but now he is probably praying for them to simply leave him in peace.

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President Barack Obama has already shown that he picked up a smattering of Jewish sayings during his Chicago days, so he may possibly remember the term loch in kop, as in “I need this like a hole in the head.” That thought, in one language or another, must have gone through Obama’s mind as he sat down with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Monday in the midst of a deteriorating international crisis with Russia and Vladimir Putin.

And you, Obama may have thought as he glanced at Secretary of State John Kerry, the instigator of what increasingly seems like yet another quixotic push for peace – you are the one who drilled that hole in the first place.

But even if the achievement of a “framework” for Israeli-Palestinian talks has been transformed virtually overnight from a lofty goal to a nagging nuisance, failure is not an option for Obama. Not now, when another setback may brand him, to borrow another Yinglish term, as a serial schlemiel; not now, when his approval ratings are dipping dangerously below 40%; not now, when the world is skeptical anyway about his ability to deal with the mess in Crimea or with a tough guy like Putin.

Obama’s main objective with Abbas on Monday, therefore, was to kick the proverbial can up the road, and to postpone what some are describing as the inevitable breakdown of Kerry’s efforts, for as long as possible. To achieve this, Obama and the administration are now pursuing a three-staged strategy of admittedly diminishing returns: first, to exert strong and possibly brutal pressure on Abbas to agree to some form of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in the proposed “framework” for negotiations, even if the Palestinians disassociate themselves from it in public; second, to begin to explore the possibility of a much simpler agreement to extend the talks beyond their current April 29 deadline in exchange for some Israeli concession, preferably on settlements; and third, failing that, to make sure at the very least that Israeli carries out the scheduled March 29 prisoner release so that the process doesn’t implode at the height of the Crimean crisis.

Because no one really expects the sanctions announced by Obama at the Press Room at the White House – before he quickly ran off for his meeting with Abbas – to quell the rising tensions in eastern Ukraine. Whether the only thing weaker than the measures announced by Obama is “doing nothing,” as Senator John McCain suggested Monday, or whether they actually constitute a stinging and perhaps even insulting blow to Putin’s trusted inner circle, as others maintained, the Russian leader quickly clarified his reaction by recognizing and trumpeting Crimea’s newfound “independence,” despite Obama’s threats.

According to Russian-born Russia-watcher Julia Ioffe, it won’t end there. Writing in the New Republic on Monday, Ioffe noted that Putin is bound to preempt a Ukraine move to cut off Crimea’s supplies of gas, water and electricity by capturing the installations that supply them in southeastern Ukraine. Such a move — which, according to some reports, is already under way — would further escalate the already deteriorating situation, force Obama to escalate his sanctions and further inflame tensions throughout the European continent, just like the bad old days.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” an incredulous Kerry said at the start of the crisis, though Putin seems bent on proving him wrong. Kerry’s sentiment is reminiscent of one expressed 70 years ago by Warren Austin, a U.S. senator from Vermont who was also U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who famously said – or at least is said to have said – “I hope Arabs and Jews will settle their differences in a truly Christian spirit.”

Maybe Obama shared that virtuous hope at the start of his presidency, but after meeting in recent weeks with both Netanyahu and Abbas, and after getting another concentrated dose of their boundless mutual suspicion and distrust, he may have finally shed his Christian wishes for mutual reconciliation. Instead of asking for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama may now be praying that they simply leave him in peace. 

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about Ukraine, Monday, March 17, 2014.Credit: AP

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